Finding the Northumberland-charity-night-match Within

Two of Third Man’s favourite books are It never rains … A Cricketer’s Lot by Peter Roebuck and On and Off the Field by Ed Smith.  Both are diaries of a cricket season written by young professionals battling with their demons and insecurities in the perenial search for form.  The first describes the 1983 season, the second that of 2003.

In early 1983 the Somerset squad meet up for pre-season training at Millfield School.    Roebuck has just returned from spending the winter teaching and coaching in Australia.  He feels fit having spent time training with some Rugby players down under, but is unwell having eaten a tinned fruit cocktail during a stop over in Bombey.  “Today I am ill and didn’t go to work – does work sound okay?” 

He is experimenting with what is now called a trigger movement.  “Can’t quite work out how to bat this season.  Always before, I’ve stood still and blocked the ball.  Today I tried to get more behind it by moving before the ball is bowled … Trouble is, it doesn’t work for me somehow.  I don’t know how Boycott and the rest do it so well.” 

Roebuck is a very fine writer and never more so than when he is analysing aspects of the game that he understands so well.  Through him we get a ring-side seat close to the action. “Good players appear to arrive in the right place at the right time as if it were the most natural thing in the world.  They are always balanced and in command of the ball, always playing the ball near to their bodies.  How do they do it?  They play very late.  Apart from that, you can’t really generalise about excellent batsmen.”

Wednesday 14 April (happy Jungian coincidence as TM is writing this on the anniversary) finds Roebuck making his acquaintance with the club’s new bowling machine.  “It’s a strange contraption with splints and what appears to be tyres whirling round. It shoots the ball out without warning  so that if you put it on high speed you feel like a coconut.”  [What would PMR make of Merlyn, the latest Warne-imitating spin machine that ‘beeps’ and flashes its lights before spitting out late drifting, steep dipping, buzzing breaks ?]

In 20 minutes he faces 150 balls.  Gradually more end up past the bowler.  [TM remembers Ken Palmer doing this exercise a few years before in much the same way but using expendable young net bowlers.  Might be a Somerset thing.] 

As pre-season continues Roebuck appears to be the only person in the club to use the machine – one can imagine the views of the other professionals, which include I.T. Botham, both on the use of the machine itself and on the eccentricity shown by Roebuck in using it at all.

Eccentricity?  Saturday 30th July v Lancashire at Old Trafford (1st day) and Roebuck is off alone in Manchester that evening, to see a play at the Royal Exchange.  “It must be heartbreaking for actors steeped in experience to play to half-empty houses.  Not that there were many at Old Trafford this afternoon for Richards and Clive Lloyd.”

Somerset’s stumbling season reaches its special climax at a Lord’s Nat West final.  “Arrived to find a deserted visitors’ dressing room filled only by balloons and telegrams.  There had been long lines of people waiting for the gates to open, and these provided the first inkling that the day would contrast sharply with yesterday’s nonsense at Taunton.”

His fortunes conclude with a charity night match in Northumberland.  He bats brilliantly (according to the local newspaper) to the astonishment of his team-mates.  He hits straight sixes, backs away to play some delicate late cuts and steps inside a left-arm spinner to lift him over cover.  He reflects that he’d never even tried to bat like this before, never even given himself the chance to play these shots.

Was it a freak?  “Perhaps the insecurity of batting, sharpened as it is by being my career, has caused me to concentrate on the avoidance of failure rather than accepting the challenges … To succeed in this I would have to be more tolerant of bad dismissals, I’d have to endure mishap with a shrug and a laugh.  Probably I’ve been too intense about it all.” 

In Roebuck’s autobiography, Sometimes I Forgot to Laugh, his father described his son as ‘obscure and oblique’.  Certainly no batsman’s stance ever expressed so vividly the internal contortions of a batsman’s psyche.  Now this mind, clear and direct from the media centre, helps to disentangle our thinking on the game in The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald.

This is a must read for cricketers wishing to escape their demons and find the Northumberland-charity-night-match within them.  And essential reading for Directors of Cricket, selectors and coaches who should create the environment in which young cricketers can play without fear. 

It never rains … looks to be out of print but can be purchased at Abebooks for 65p plus postage at a number of booksellers. 

Tomorrow TM hopes to borrow the Wellsian time contraption to visit 2003.

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